In addition to being the highest capital in the world, La Paz also has a very unique topography. Buildings cover almost every inch of the mountainous hillsides and the heart of the city sits down in a valley. On the outskirts of La Paz is a very interesting place called the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) with an almost other-worldly landscape. Erosion of the clay in the mountain has resulted in huge spires that cover the area, creating a rugged and stark environment.
If the scenery wasn’t surreal enough, there was a flute player that climbed to the top of one of the jagged peaks playing very haunting, traditional music. The sounds of the music echoed throughout the valley, creating a very haunting atmosphere. There were very few people there on the day that we visited, which also added to the overall experience. We have seen some very unique geology, but visiting the Valle de la Luna is certainly one of the most fascinating.
There is a path with wooden stairs that wind their way throughout the park. There are also observation decks that overlook some of the more interesting features of the valley. As we walked around the valley, the flute player continued to move from one peak to another, almost as if he was shadowing our movements. For anyone who visits La Paz, the Valley of the Moon should definitely be on your agenda.
During our time in Ecuador, we made Quito our home base and then did excursions from there. We had a lot of things planned for our visit to Ecuador, so we sandwiched our excursions with time in Quito before and after our various adventures. It worked out really well because we had a couple of days to get acquainted with Quito before leaving every day and then we had a couple of days on the back-end to relax and enjoy the city after seven straight days of waking up early, most days at 5:00 am. Our hotel was perfectly situated between Quito’s old town and the restaurant district called Mariscal. There was also a park on one side and a market selling local products on the other side.
On our first day in Quito, we had to walk through the park on way to the old town area and on the weekends artists sell their originals all around the park. We strolled along the sidewalks looking at the artwork and various items for sale. We didn’t buy anything that day, but we did see a watercolor painting that we knew that we wanted and we returned the following weekend to get it as our memento of our trip. There were so many wonderful paintings that we wish we could have purchased several of them. The walk to old town takes you by many small shops specializing in a variety of products such as shoes, suits, toys, etc., plus there are many tiny restaurants, many of them selling ice cream to the cars that were passing by as well as the pedestrians on the sidewalk.
As with many cities, there are several churches and cathedrals that are the highlights to see and the most beautiful of these was the Basilica, which also provides the opportunity to climb to the top of the tower with wonderful views of the city. The Basilica del Voto Nacional is the largest neo-gothic basilica in the world and its architecture is truly stunning. In addition to the Basilica, San Francisco and La Compaña are two must see churches. Seeing the gold-plated walls of La Compaña is something that will stay with us for quite some time. Each of these churches was beautiful in their own ways and are definitely worth visiting.
The other location that we spent a fair amount of time at was the Plaza Grande, also known as Independence Square, with monument to the independence heroes in the center of the plaza and two palaces around the square. You can also see the changing of the guards at 11:00 am, but the crowds can be quite large. There is also a shopping area inside of one of the palace buildings with wonderful restaurants and excellent local artisan crafts. It is an excellent place to sit and have a glass of wine and people watch. It was also where we saw the most tourists of any place that we went to during our time in Quito.
Another location that is definitely worth visiting is Calle La Ronda, which is a street with old world architecture. You definitely can feel the history as you walk along the cobblestone streets and in many ways it almost transports you to Spain. The balconies with their colorful flowers, small shops and restaurants, and bustling streets are very fascinating. Although we didn’t take the time to go up to it, you can’t miss seeing the Panecillo statue, the statue of the angel that oversees Quito’s old town. There are several other sites to see while you are in Quito, but these are the ones that we felt were most important.
Quito is like any major metropolis with different neighborhoods of various economic wealth. There are definitely places and times when you need to be aware of the possibility of petty crime and pickpockets. With that said, just like any city, you just need to be smart about where you go and be aware of your environment. We found everyone to be extremely friendly and helpful wherever we went in Quito. Especially in the old town area, Quito’s old world charm was very interesting and enjoyable. It is definitely a city that deserves at least a couple of days in order to fully see everything that it has to offer.
In many ways it is hard to describe the city of La Paz, Bolivia. It is a city of contrasts built literally on the steep hills of the Andes mountains. It is considered to be the highest (unofficial) capital in the world at 3,660 meters (12,000 feet) and many tourist suffer the effect of altitude sickness when visiting, although we were fortunate to not have any problems adjusting to the altitude. There are some very nice areas with beautiful homes and modern skyscrapers, but the majority of the city is still living in poverty. It is very much like any major city in a developing country that has pockets of wealth, but most people are in need of necessities.
The best way to see the city is to take the cable cars that carry people over the rooftops of the city. When you consider that the cities buildings are literally built on the canyon walls and the city itself spans a 600 meter (2,000 foot) altitude, having cable cars is an obvious way to scale the heights. There are plenty of taxis, shared taxis, radio taxis, and dishonest taxis, but navigating the traffic of the city can be difficult at best. So the cable cars serve as an airborne transit system taking you from the center of the city to the top of the surrounding suburbs. It is the one thing that you must do when you visit La Paz.
One thing that you will quickly notice when you visit any city in Bolivia is that there are a lot of dogs roaming the streets. Many, but not all, of them have owners who simply let them out in the morning and allow them to wander the streets to find their own food and then open their doors to them when they return at night. There are packs of dogs protecting their territories brutishly punishing any dogs who attempt to cross into their neighborhoods. And during the heat of the day, there are dogs sleeping in any shaded area that can be found. It seems as though everyone has come to a happy coexistence as the people seemingly ignore the dogs around them and the dogs pay no mind the people unless they happen to set their food down momentarily unattended.
One of the more interesting things that we saw while in La Paz was the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). It is a fascinating natural landscape that very much looks like it could be in outer space. There was even an Aymara, the local tribe of the La Paz area, musician standing on the peaks of one of the giant pillars playing a flute and a banjo-like instrument. It was a little odd, but at the same time very interesting.
With its proximity to Lake Titicaca, Tiwanaku, Uyuni Salt Flats, and the Amazon River, La Paz is an ideal starting point for any Bolivian adventure. Be sure, though, to take time to explore La Paz itself, with Mt Illimani looming in the distance, it is definitely worth it. We had been warned several times before heading to Bolivia to be wary of petty theft and pickpockets. We always take normal precautions such as only going to out-of-the-way places during the day and trying not to act like a tourist, but we found everyone to be very nice and had no incidents while were there. It was definitely an interesting city to visit.